The inevitability of fire and the utter waste

The federal forests of Southwest Oregon are currently a disaster waiting to happen.

These federally "managed" O&C and National Forest lands annually grow approximately a billion board feet of softwood timber, enough to build about 70,000 new homes. Actual management of, and harvesting from, these lands, however, is virtually nonexistent. The harvest level of green timber over the past 15 years has averaged less than 5 percent of annual growth. We have thousands upon thousands of acres with 500, 600 and even 700 or more trees per acre where an optimal number would be 75 to 100. This unbalanced growth/harvest ratio will do nothing but continue into the future unless something is done to immediately change this unchecked growth.

One would have thought the two local disasters of 2002, the Biscuit fire and the Timbered Rock fire, would have precipitated a change in how these lands are managed. Not so. The Biscuit fire, one of this state's worst ever, killed close to 5 billion board feet of timber. Millions of dead standing trees remain as a legacy to that fire and are a testament to the utter stupidity that occurred when any meaningful salvage of that resource was effectively stopped by legal suits from the environmental community. Less than 2 percent of the killed timber was salvaged. That which was salvaged was turned into plywood, lumber and other wood products, thereby sequestering the carbon component of the wood fiber. That which wasn't salvaged is currently rotting and decomposing, all the while releasing endless amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and will continue to do so for decades.

In addition to the carbon release problem is the ever increasing fire danger that exists within the boundaries of these fires. Brush fields have grown up in the untreated and non-reforested areas of both fires.

On private lands that burned in these fires, salvage logging took place immediately. Further, as mandated by the Oregon Forest Practices Act, reforestation took place right after the salvage logging was finishing. Now these private timberlands are vast hillsides of 10- to 15-foot and taller trees.

In stark contrast, the adjacent federal lands consist of tangles of 10- to 15-foot interwoven brush interspersed with standing large snags, legacies of the original fires. Even where replanting by the federal agencies took place, their policy of not employing herbicides to restrict the growth of hardwoods and brush ensured the failure of their replanting efforts.

Now these same federal lands, with their thousands of lightning-attracting snags, are at extreme risk of fire. Once these brush fields catch fire, they are virtually unstoppable, as evidenced by the fires we see today in Idaho and have seen time and time again in Southern California.

How do we insure that these previously burned areas don't burn again and again?

Three things must be done in a fires aftermath:

  • Salvage logging needs to occur to clean up and utilize most of the standing dead timber.
  • Herbicides need to be used to inhibit the immediate regrowth of brush and hardwoods, most of whose root systems remain viable for subsequent re-sprouting.
  • Replanting must occur after salvage logging so new forests can get established and outcompete grasses and brush for available nutrients and moisture.

The fact that we permit the environmental industry to continually delay salvage logging through the use of litigation is utter insanity. Their tactic of delay, as they did after the Biscuit and other fires, insured that the dead standing trees would have no economic value by the time their appeals had been denied. Thus significant salvage and reforestation did not occur.

The environmental industry claims that fire is natural, but these catastrophic fires aren't natural to Southern Oregon, these are uncharacteristic fires and our forests must be managed to prevent them from recurring. Despite environmentalists' emotionalized claims, snag forests are not beautiful, they're ugly.

So far this year we've seen almost 100,000 acres burn. We can't let this waste and mismanagement occur again. Your senators and congressmen need to hear your thoughts on the need to salvage and reforest promptly.

David Schott is executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.

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